Parks Canada to consider Edmonton-area river valley for national urban park network

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Canada's largest urban park is in the running to gain official status as a national urban park, which proponents say would help protect local ecology and bring tourism to the region.

The federal government announced $130 million in funding to create a network of national urban parks on Aug. 4. The government identified seven initial potential sites, one of which is the section of the North Saskatchewan River Valley in the Edmonton metropolitan region, between Devon and Fort Saskatchewan.

"(The river) has a wide range of significances," said Bill Wells, director of the North Saskatchewan River Valley Conservation Society, which has been working with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and the Sierra Club Canada Foundation to promote the river valley as a potential site. "It's important in terms of wildlife. It's important in terms of culture and history, and traditions of both newcomers and the populations that have lived here for thousands of years."

Kecia Kerr, executive director of CPAWS, said that portions of the river valley have been subject to industrial developments over the past few decades, such as a controversial solar farm that was allowed to move forward by Edmonton city council last fall, which can threaten the local ecology, and that national park status would help prevent similar developments.

"Even though there is this enthusiasm and commitment to protect the area, it's still getting chipped away," she said.

Kerr estimates that 30 hectares of the river valley in the Edmonton area are lost each year to industrial development.

Currently, only one national park inside an urban area exists — Rouge National Urban Park in Ontario. While the federal government's legislation regarding urban national parks is still being developed, Kerr hopes it will include more regulatory barriers to develop the land, and for municipalities to sell the land to private individuals or companies. She added that other regulations could be more relaxed — like the requirement of a national park pass, so that local residents would not need a pass to visit the river valley within their own city or town.

A photo of the North Saskatchewan river. At 7,300 hectares, the section of the North Saskatchewan River Valley inside the City of Edmonton is the largest urban parkland in Canada. (River Valley Alliance)

National park status could also help protect the river from selenium pollution related to coal mining in the North Saskatchewan River's headwaters. While the status would not directly affect projects outside of the park's boundaries, it would give municipalities in the park a say in the approval process for projects that could potentially impact the river.

In February, Edmonton city council voted to investigate potential harms to the city's water supply from future coal mines in the rocky mountains that were approved by the provincial government, and to write a letter expressing its concern about the projects.

Wells said that in addition to ecological protection, a national park would bring visitors to the region, providing a boost to the regional economy.

"For tourism, there's an obvious benefit," he said. "If you're on your way to Jasper, now there's a new national park area that you want to see."

He added that Canada's existing national park program has a reputation for being one of the best in the world, and attracts visitors from all over.

While Parks Canada has signed agreements with local officials to develop four of the other proposed sites in Meewasin Valley, Winnipeg, Halifax, and Windsor, details for the Edmonton-area park area are still being worked out, such as the exact boundaries.

"Discussions are really in early stages," Kerr said, explaining that the boundaries could include any partial section of the river valley that falls inside an urban area, and could even branch outside of the river valley to connect to Elk Island National Park.

In talks with municipal officials, who will need to approve the creation of a national park inside their respective jurisdictions, the partners have received the most enthusiasm in Devon, and some in Edmonton.

In an Aug. 4 press release from Parks Canada, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said he was "excited by this opportunity to work with the Canadian government."

Anecdotally, Wells said he has heard a lot of support from the public for an urban park, and for added protections to the river valley more generally.

"There's a predisposition to supporting (national urban park status)," he said. "You can see that up and down the river from Devon to Fort Saskatchewan and the various counties and communities in between."

"It confirms what people in the Edmonton-area have thought for a hundred years — how important that river is to the identity of the region and its livelihood."

Correction: The river valley has been losing an average of 30 hectares to industrial development each year, not a total of 15 hectares over 15 years as it previously stated in the story.